BWW Reviews: Wicked Wordplay Slashes Egos at KC's Unicorn Theatre

Recently, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon made an appearance in Kansas City. Struggling against the crashing din of the Midwest thunderstorm raging outside, he managed to get through a 20-minute reading from his latest novel, opening the floor to questions when he'd finished.

There was a nervous pause, after which hands began going up, and the the poor guy had to delicately navigate the following: "Umm, I have, like, a boring writer question..." "Hi, uh, I don't pretend to be a writer yet, but I was wondering if..." And so it went. I was embarrassed for the questioners.

Watching a rehearsal of Unicorn Theater's upcoming production of Theresa Rebeck's 2010 Broadway play SEMINAR, brought that night to mind. The play's about exactly the sort of young dolts witnessed in the reading. In it, four callow upper-middle-class apprentices have hired a renown writer to help them develop their work, and he brooks none of their feelings in his acid-tongued critiques of the crap he's given to evaluate.

The play--which had a respectable Broadway run (191 performances), and received mostly positive reviews--is here a co-production with the University of Missouri, Kansas City and is directed by UMKC acting professor Theodore Swetz.

Swetz, a native of New York who began his career with the New York Shakespeare Festival, said in a recent interview "We (the Unicorn and UMKC) look for material that benefits both of us. And this was a piece I saw in New York and called Cynthia (Levin, Unicorn's artistic director) and said 'Hey, when you coming to New York? I think you might want to catch this one, because I think it serves both our purposes.' So this has great roles for young people and it's just a great show for the Unicorn because it's edgy and it's daring."

Robert Gibby Brand, a veteran of local stages and a UMKC acting graduate, plays Leonard. He said his character "uses every device he can to shake them (the students who've hired him) out of their complacency, their isolation.

"They're all upper-middle-class-and more-white kids who had great privilege and higher education. And he wants to crack them out of that and make them realize that you cannot create in a vacuum and that life is more than that...he tells the truth, you know, no sugar coating at all. And that's a very painful thing to do to anybody."

Courtney Salvage plays Kate, one of Leonard's students, a character who props up her failure to find an authentic artistic voice with allusions to her literary hero, Jane Austen. "It's just interesting to see how...all of the students cope in their own way with what Leonard shows to them.

"[W]hat really is exciting about the play is the standard about writing that it depicts," Swetz said. "That really attracted me to it, because Leonard is fiercely defining a standard of writing and he never tells a lie, he only tells the truth.

"It's not comfortable to be in a room with somebody who despises mediocrity-which we all should, whether it's in the theater or in writing-exposes it and kills it."

SEMINAR opens at the Unicorn Theater Saturday, Oct. 19 and plays through Nov. 10. For tickets and more information, visit the theater's website,

Photo by Cynthia Levin

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